When I read last week’s CBC piece that called into question Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s identity as an Indigenous person of Canada — I was angry. I felt a sting of betrayal after reading the whole article, which was incredibly thorough, and at the end I came to the conclusion that Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is a white woman.
In the wake of these revelations, she has been uplifted for her advocacy and work for Indigenous people. But that work has now been tainted. All I see is yet another white woman who took advantage of Indigenous people — using our identities, our history and our pain to elevate herself professionally.
According to the CBC piece, early in her career, Turpel-Lafond began calling herself “the first treaty Indian to be appointed to the court.” A treaty Indian is someone with historic treaty rights. On the prairies, it’s usually also someone who holds a status card — which is why we often call them “treaty cards.” When I go to the gas station on my reserve the person behind the cash register will often ask me: “What’s your treaty number?” if I haven’t already offered up my status card. They’re referring to the number on my status card, which situates me as the first child of my father, and a member of the Sweetgrass First Nation.
Turpel-Lafond would know this, of course. She’s a Harvard-educated former judge, an extremely capable and intelligent woman who knows the ins and outs of the Indian Act intimately, having worked within and perhaps against its confines for much of her professional career.
If what I read in the CBC piece indeed represents the full story behind Turpel-Lafond’s identity, well — claiming Indigeneity off of one’s white grandfather being the doctor at a residential “school” is problematic, to put it lightly. It’s akin to a descendent of a slave-holding family claiming family ties with the decscendants of the slaves his forefathers owned. The descendents of the slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson may also have the last name Jefferson, but they are not related. They may even be in kinship with one another, but that wouldn’t necessarily make the former president’s descendents Black.
It seems that the Turpel family, like so many other settler families, may have believed that there was “an Indian” somewhere in their ancestral line. Turpel-Lafond may have even believed that her own father was Cree, as it seems like there were some whispers amongst cousins that this was the case. Michelle Latimer also claimed to be from the very community her French ancestors colonized. And Joseph Boyden had an uncle nicknamed “Indian Joe” who sold tipi-themed tchotchkes to tourists out of a roadside shop. Somehow, when it came to checking the box that said, “Indigenous,” these white folks, who weren’t actually Indigenous, felt that having a “maybe” somewhere in their family tree qualified them to do so.
But proximity does not equal kinship, and one simply cannot claim to be Indigenous based on family lore. The nature of the relationship matters as well. Who had the power? If Turpel-Lafond’s grandfather was part of the “colonial elite” as the CBC article suggests, it’s obvious that her family wasn’t even in kinship with Indigenous people until after she got her law degree and began claiming Cree culture as her own. They were agents of the state, working alongside other colonial forces to oppress the people of Norway House First Nation.
The reality is that in some perverse twist of colonial violence, being Indigenous has now become “cool.” It’s bizarre that we live in times when white folks are claiming to be Indigenous. A similar phenomenon happened in Australia a couple of decades ago — for the first hundred years it was shameful to have had an ancestor that was one of the felons brought over as prisoners from England. Then at some point that changed. It became something people wanted to be able to claim, and folks who had no connection to the prisoners who settled Australia began claiming that their ancestors were, in fact, criminals. It gave them clout.
As non-Indigenous settlers of “Canada” for the first time begin to show their appreciation and respect towards Indigenous people and communities en masse, Indigeneity has become another way to stand out, to be special. To be noticed. To be lauded, especially if you overcame hardships to succeed.
And we all know what happens when white people want something – they take it.
They also bolster harmful stereotypes in the process. The CBC article noted a magazine article that said of Turpel-Lafond’s childhood: “Like so many Native homes, hers was rife with alcoholism, poverty and violence. She regularly witnessed her father striking her mother and suffered abuse herself.’”
Growing up with Indigenous parents doesn’t automatically mean growing up around abuse and alcohol addiction, just as having parents who do struggle with these things does not automatically mean one is Indigenous. And even for homes where that is the case — reducing Indigenous people to the effects of their trauma is extremely offensive, and I can’t believe Turpel-Lafond allowed her childhood to be described this way.
My father talks about the “collateral damage” that his experiences in residential “school” created for the people in his life. He knows that there were periods of time where he hurt people and he’s expressed remorse to me about the pain he caused. This is serious. This is real. This is my family, my life. How could someone feel comfortable lifting that experience, trying it on like a cheap suit and parading around in it?
Pretending to be Indigenous when one is not also creates collateral damage. I think about the young Indigenous people Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond inspired and mentored, who must be experiencing a lot of pain and hurt.
I also think of the people she used as human shields to defend her lies, particularly Kelly Wolfe, the chief of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. He’s the one who has been recorded claiming Turpel-Lafond is a “full” member. He’s the one sticking his neck out for her, regardless of the facts. She put him in a position where he felt obligated to say she is Indigenous, and knowing the facts while hearing him say it is cringe-inducing for me. Some people blame CBC for approaching Wolfe in this manner, but I do not. I hold Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond responsible for putting him in this position.
Let me make it clear that I am not criticizing Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, or any other group that claims Turpel-Lafond. I believe it’s absolutely possible to be a non-Indigenous person who is in kinship with Indigenous people. My husband, for example, has a darker complexion, and my brother once joked he should tell people he was “part of a strong Cree family.” He is an accepted member of my family because of the respectful way he interacts with them, and the time and energy he gives to them when it’s requested. But he would never personally take on our identity.
One does not need to be Indigenous to work on behalf of Indigenous people seeking justice. One does not need to be Indigenous in order to do good in Indigenous communities. Plenty of folks whose ancestry traces back to Europe, Asia and beyond do good work with First Nations Peoples and communities without claiming their identities as their own. Turpel-Lafond could have done this. But she didn’t.
And settlers — I have one last plea: please don’t allow your children to check off the “Indigenous” box on university and job application forms just because you heard your uncle Bob may have been one quarter Indigenous. Make sure your children know that this isn’t how Indigenous identity is forged.
Who am I to judge?
I am a Cree woman.
And I am a treaty Indian. An actual treaty Indian, unlike, as all evidence would suggest, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
Editor’s note: This article was revised as of Oct. 21 to clarify the distinction between treaty and status.